Oct. 26, 2019

By Scott Williams

STEVENS POINT – The smile that slowly started to stretch across the face of Wausau West volleyball coach Cathy Newton late in the fourth set spoke a thousand words.

There are special moments over a 35-year span of high school coaching. This was one of them in the 2019 season for Newton.

Her players would join her with smiles on their collective faces a short time later. A little more spry than their coach, the Warriors would add a whole lot of hopping around to the celebration.

West exorcised some recent demons, and in the process earned a trip to a Division 1 sectional with a 25-23, 19-25, 25-19, 25-15 win over SPASH in the regional final Saturday night.

The Warriors will travel to New Richmond on Thursday for a sectional semifinal date with No. 2 seed Eau Claire North, a 25-15, 25-16, 25-15 winner over Wausau East.

Action will begin at approximately 7 p.m. The other semifinal pits top-seeded River Falls against Hudson.

“It’s overwhelming and I’m so excited,” said Warriors senior libero Jenna Rusch, who finished with 13 digs and a pair of aces. “It’s really promising for the rest of the season.

“I think we came out believing in ourselves and knowing we could do. We had a really different attitude the the last two times we played them.”

It would have been understandable if there was at least a hint of doubt heading into the match. After all, success against SPASH has been limited for the Warriors in recent times.

The Panthers held the upper hand in regional play in each of the previous two seasons. West also was swept in both regular season conference meetings this year.

This was a much different version of the Warriors, however. The result was an extremely satisfying outcome.

“This was big and doing it on their court was big,” Newton said. “(SPASH) plays solid and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. It felt like we’ve taken ourselves out of the last couple matches with them.

“Our kids really stepped it up. They wanted it.”

It was a classic example of role reversal.

In both conference dual meets during the season, the Warriors were the team that struggled with serve receive, passing and positioning to make plays on defense.

This time those issues haunted the Panthers.

SPASH coach Molly Williams felt the team that showed up Saturday wasn’t anything close to the one that won the Wisconsin Valley Conference championship.

“We didn’t really come out and play our best volleyball, and at this point in the season you have to. There is no room for mistakes,” Williams said. “Everybody’s season ends at some point and unfortunately, ours was tonight.

“Hats off to West, they played an incredible match. They just outplayed us. They put a lot of pieces together.”

West received a huge injection of confidence when it pulled out the opening set.

All of the close sets during the regular season went to the Panthers. This time the Warriors did a much better job of finishing off the sets despite some slow starts.

A kill by Cassie Oelke followed by an ace from Grace Michalske sewed up the opening set, and gave the momentum to West.

“We started out the postseason with a renewed energy. We definitely focused on knowing we could trust in each other, and trust in the team,” Rusch said.

West lost its focus early in the second set and it cost them.

The Panthers built an early 6-0 lead and grabbed the set behind strong hitting from Maddy Dokken and solid defense featuring strong blocking at the net.

The Warriors quickly shrugged that set off and rediscovered their formula for success to cruise in the final two sets.

That meant a combination of air tight defense and a balanced hitting attack not reliant on standout Robyn Kirsch.

The junior outside hitter paced the Warriors with 17 kills. But Kirsch received plenty of help. Kiley Deaton chipped in with 12 kills while Anna Cunningham and Oelke did their part.

Michalske, the junior setter, made sure she utilized all the hitting weapons and finished with 33 assists.

Five players reached double figures in digs led by Kirsch with 18. Deaton contributed 17 digs, while Oelke had 15. Michalske helped out with 14 digs.

“We talked about handing them a lot of points on our mistakes in the past. I feel like we really focused on minimizing that tonight,” Rusch said.

With the Panthers out of the way, West can now focus on keeping the postseason run going next week.

One thing is certain. Newton is going to continue to enjoy her team and the players for as long as the season lasts.

“This is what it’s about. When you have teams that come together, whether it’s the players on the bench or on the court, and all of them are wanting everyone to succeed, that pretty special,” Newton said.